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Court Hears Job Discrimination Case


By: Associated Press
New York Times, March 20, 2002

 

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court was urged Wednesday to give older workers the same protection from discrimination as minorities in a case that will determine how companies can be sued over things like layoffs.

The stakes are huge for companies that now sometimes carefully orchestrate layoffs to avoid age discrimination lawsuits.

The court must decide if a 1967 law that bars on-the-job age bias allows lawsuits based on the premise that an employer's action had a ``disparate impact'' on older workers. Justices have already settled that such suits are allowed under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination because of someone's religion, gender or race.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said the long history of racial discrimination helped the court make that decision 30 years ago, but questioned whether there was a similar bias against the elderly.

``There are subtle biases'' against older workers, said John G. Crabtree, the attorney for the former Florida utility workers in the case.

Glen D. Nager, representing the utility, said the 1967 law focuses on employers' motive and should not be treated like the Civil Rights Act.

In their filings, AARP and other groups told the Supreme Court that a ruling against the employees could ``undermine the core civil rights principle that workers should be judged based on their abilities rather than characteristics ... such as age.''

Close to 120 former Florida Power Corp. employees claim they were fired as part of a company effort to change its image and reduce salary and pension costs. More than 70 percent of those laid off during company reorganizations in the 1990s were age 40 or older.

The employees sued in federal court under the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act, but the court asked the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals whether former employees could bring such a suit. The appellate court ruled that they could not under that law.

When the Supreme Court agreed last December to hear the case, the country was in the 10th month of a recession, and companies were cutting an average of 146,000 jobs a month. Businesses added jobs last month, a sign of recovery from the recession.

New York employment lawyer Michael Delikat said a victory for the power company would help employers deal with economic cutbacks and lawsuits by disgruntled former workers.

``These litigations can be very expensive, very time-consuming,'' Delikat said.

The 1967 law covers about 70 million workers age 40 or older, nearly half the work force. Older workers may not be treated differently solely based on age, the law says, and it allows workers to collect back pay, benefits and other compensation if they win discrimination claims.

The ruling in this case, expected by summer, could end ``disparate impact'' claims under the act. Justices flirted with that concept in 1993 but stopped short in an age bias decision that has been interpreted differently by appeals courts around the country.

If the court were to make a similar ruling now, to win future age bias cases elderly workers would have to prove an intent to discriminate by employers. That is a harder case to make than ``disparate impact.''

That outcome also would ease employers' worries about whether their layoff plans could have an unintended harmful impact on older employees.

The case is Adams v. Florida Power Corp., 01-584

 


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